Life as a Cocktail Party

My bright-eyed arrival at Harvard was motivated by the all-American concept of a liberal arts education. Leaving Italy for my education abroad, I wanted to grow as a person. Although I knew I didn’t want pre-professional training, now that I’m here, I’ve found that the definition of general education eludes me. Whereas I used to think it was simply the humanities, I was mistaken. Teaching in the humanities seems to prepare us more as professional critics than as thinking individuals.

A recent conversation with a friend helped me put my education into perspective. She marveled at my continental philosophy course. But while I’d chosen it because reading the great minds of the 20th century seemed fundamental, she simply exclaimed: “That’s wonderful! You’ll always have something fabulous to talk about at cocktail parties!” Before our exchange I hadn’t deluded myself that my views on Derrida and Foucault would ever change the world, but I did believe I was pursuing something less mundane than cocktail party fare. I was crest-fallen. Where was the appreciation for the humanistic and well-rounded individual?

Looking for it in my classes confirmed my apprehension. The humanities are not a haven from the pre-professional training that takes place at Harvard; really, they’re not so different from the departments dedicated to preparing scientists, engineers, doctors, investment bankers and the like. It seems the professors wish to prepare students who will fill the future ranks of academia. Yet many of us don’t share this intent. So, why do we study the humanities? The most useful application of what we learn will be to pepper our conversations. We’re certainly learning to become “very interesting people” who will never be short on intellectual banter.

Initially I was disconcerted, but I’m getting used to the idea. From my new perspective, I see now that my friend is way ahead of the game in preparing for a future of embassy dinners and such small-talk situations. Should the conversation ever lag, she can always drop the bomb that, despite being an all-American girl, she speaks Russian, Hindi and Urdu. “It’s not that difficult,” she will smile mysteriously. Impressed by her versatility, she’ll be considered part of that special breed of excellent conversationalists. Of course, it’s not infrequent for Harvard students to gain this kind of mystique. If you consider that the buzzword at my roommate’s pre-orientation program was “heteronormativity,” you’ll surely realize that the step to phallogocentrism and Hindi/Urdu is not arduous. After four years in Cambridge we are ready to engage absolutely anyone in chat. We’ll call some abstrusity our specialty, and thanks to the Core, the rest will be covered.

Thus, while many prepare to become scientists and businessmen, I know all I’m doing is preparing myself for life as a cocktail party. Since destitution is not high on my list, I console myself with the knowledge that refuge can always be sought in law school. Later, I will meet up with my former humanities peers to reminisce about the times we studied the Oresteia, Mark Rothko and panoptic power discourse. It will be wonderful. Assuming, of course, that our memory will be good enough to still retain anything we studied in these distant college days.

Alexander Bevilacqua ’07, a Crimson editorial editor, lives in Canaday Hall.